wed 28/02/2024

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (1934-2016) - 'Music for anyone and everyone' | reviews, news & interviews

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (1934-2016) - 'Music for anyone and everyone'

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (1934-2016) - 'Music for anyone and everyone'

Remembering the sometimes controversial composer whose work spanned the musical spectrum

Max: 'a keenly inquisitive conversationalist with the whole of Western culture at his fingertips'Martin Lengemann

With the death of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies from leukaemia at the age of 81, the UK has lost the most prolific composer of his generation, as well as one of the most passionate advocates for art music.

Maxwell Davies, known universally as Max, wrote for every classical genre under the sun. Stevie’s Ferry to Hoy is played today by children and piano students the world over. With a simple melody of unaffected charm and satisfying rhythmic games playing just beneath the surface, the piece is as characteristically Max as the unrelenting orchestral churn of Worldes Blis, the gay and sentimental cabaret of his score for the soundtrack to The Boyfriend, or the screaming intensity of Eight Songs for a Mad King.

These pieces saw authority and challenged it, in church, in state, in bourgeois complacency

Like many composers of practised accomplishment, Max was disarmingly direct about the literal sources of inspiration for his music, and how it was made, while keeping to himself what one suspects were the personal spurs to the notes on the page. In person he was frank and funny, hardly gregarious company – as one would expect from a man who chose to live on a remote Orkney island for decades – but a keenly inquisitive conversationalist with the whole of Western culture at his fingertips. He was in the middle of writing his sequence of ten string quartets when I first met him, at a flat in Earl’s Court, and he excused himself after an hour and half by saying he had to go and buy his underwear from Marks and Spencer.

By then he was Master of the Queen’s Music, purveyor of anthems and occasional pieces to the same Establishment which the big pieces from the first half of his career contest and oppose. Max had dramatised just such a personal, artistic conflict in Taverner, the commission for The Royal Opera that caused a popular scandal at its premiere in 1972. Martin Cooper in the Daily Telegraph had fulminated about “the wide disparity between the composer's intellectual reach and his emotional grasp”, yet the house was packed for later performances in the run.

On a smaller but more subversive scale he caused no less controversy with music theatre pieces such as the Mad Songs and Vesalii Icones, written for The Fires of London of which he was co-founder with his contemporary, sometime friend and rival from student days at the Royal Northern College of Music, Sir Harrison Birtwistle. These pieces saw authority and challenged it, in church, in state, in bourgeois complacency, putting medieval and Renaissance music and stories at the service of parody and commentary to distance both artist and work from the all-embracing aesthetic of the Romantic artist. Yet the irony is that Max did have Mahlerian ambitions for his art, which he exercised on a Mahlerian scale that eventually included ten symphonies.

The Tenth was completed and first performed just two years ago by the London Symphony Orchestra, but it was the First that brought Max’s name to international attention, not so much for the first performance in front of a sceptical audience at the Royal Festival Hall as for the recording made at the time by the Philharmonia and the young Simon Rattle. From its opening call to attention to its glittering close, the First revealed Max as a natural-born symphonist, for whom the required long-range thinking came as a painstakingly trained second nature. The Second came soon after, thanks to a commission from the Boston Symphony.

Among his finest works is Black Pentecost, a cantata setting text drawn from a novel by George Mackay Brown that is a Das Lied von der Erde for the end of the last century. At once ardent in its defence of his adoptive Orkney and wrathful at the threat to its peace posed by a uranium mine, Black Pentecost speaks in long, unforced lines, with an unremitting clarity of purpose and word-painting, of loneliness, rage and also humility in the face of great natural beauty. Yet the same proposed development also prompted an irreverent cabaret suite, The Yellow Cake Revue (yellow cake = uranium), with an interlude that became his best-known piece, Farewell to Stromness.

The plain sincerity of this little piano piece takes us back to Stevie’s Ferry: music for anyone and everyone. As director of music at Cirencester Grammar School, later a teacher at universities in the US and Australia, then as founder and director of the St Magnus International Festival, finally as grand old public agitant, he was tireless in teaching and promoting music, and resisting what he saw as a tide of philistinism, especially in the policies of successive UK governments.

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